As a writer and professor of writing, I am deeply saddened by the level of language to which we English speakers have stooped. The increasing assault of swearing that erupts on the soccer pitch pains me. In the first place, I’ve heard far too much of it during games between teams of players who are too young to spell or read the words buzzing around them. Second, I celebrate English as a highly nuanced and sophisticated form of communication that gets reduced to less than a dozen vulgar nouns and adjectives describing everything from the weather to a political candidate’s worthiness to how an outfit looks. It’s as if we can only speak about issues and events using the term "bad," as in that shirt is bad or that bad ref made a bad call that hurt us badly or how bad was that. As these vulgarities waft up and over the sidelines and stands, we know our kids take this all in. Since "adults" speak this limited, dark language, kids want to emulate that behavior. We need a better standard.
I recently watched David McCullough in an interview on 60 Minutes. Mr. McCullough is an historian who has written biographies of American Presidents and books on things as diverse as the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the events leading up to the Declaration of Independence. In the interview, he lamented how woefully uneducated our children are on even the most basic facts concerning history. He spoke about a college student coming to him and stating that until she had heard his speech that day she was not aware that all the original 13 colonies were located on the East Coast. Another college student had no idea that Ben Franklin had never been our President. I was introduced to McCullough’s work by my father, who devoured his books. My historical education and knowledge can be traced in large part to reading McCullough’s books, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bruce Catton and Gore Vidal. Not only did I get a fantastic tutelage in history, but also in language. What make these writers great isn’t just their grasp of historical events and context, but their ability to craft their writing with impactful and elegant language.
I would echo McCullough’s concerns about ignorance in history with my own concerns about ignorance of the English language. Too many of my college students — and I teach at a private school with high academic requirements — can’t form sentences with subordinate clauses or employ complex transitions. With truncated vocabularies and no confidence or real experience in developing argument, they flounder. But get them out of the classroom and suddenly they have all the language they need to express themselves. Unfortunately, it’s the limited language not fit for young or tender ears. Their main argument ends up being "whatever." Their mode is the abbreviations of texting, so spelling is now a dead art. They don’t even bother to correct spelling in their college essays that is underlined by their computer software. I struggle getting them to develop a coherent piece of writing that has clear argument with support (not anecdotes), smooth transitions between ideas, refined and accurate vocabulary, a distinctive voice, and correct spelling and grammar. They don’t see the point because all they really need is a thought and a few swear words to communicate that assertion without regard to whether or not their point is valid or factually correct. Spelling and grammar — who needs it? Words that can be precise verbal surgical instruments to dissect ideas and open them up to argument — an unnecessary encumbrance. Facts — oh please! If I say it, it’s true.
In an age where we can listen nonstop to talking heads spew forth any collection of words and ideas, we accept the validity of those ideas that are repeated as fact so often that they enter the lexicon of everyday discourse. Often these shows disintegrate into provocation rather than discussion. Our kids learn that this is the new argument — he who shouts louder, wins. Amid all this shouting, inventiveness in language takes a back seat to crude observations. Trying to get any young person (or adult for that matter) to carefully weigh what is being said has become a battle. So many people don’t have the language tools to be able to pare down an assertion and to test it for truth. When Tums says it is the only antacid with calcium and all the others have magnesium, we immediately accept the premise that calcium is better than magnesium because that is what is implied in the assertion. We don’t bring any skepticism to why Tums is the only one with calcium while all the others have gone with magnesium. We don’t research to find out what is better. We don’t question the statement. This is a fairly simple example, but think of all the complex political campaign assertions, financial come-ons, insurance comparisons (does cheaper insurance really have the same level of claim protection as more expensive insurance?), food claims (don’t get me started on fat-free), and car ads that offer zero percent interest but in the small print only about 10 people in the United States qualify. How do we avoid being swayed by the claims? We have to use our language and reasoning skills to evaluate them completely.
As we resort to vulgarities to get us through our daily conversations we end up destroying the very tools we need to sort out ideas. There’s obviously the main issue that we’re exposing our children to language that has no place in their young lives. We adults forget about our audience as we scream at the driver who cut us off or "instruct" the referee on her error in judgment. Kids are absorbing those experiences as not only proper, but part of the rite of passage to adulthood. Even more significantly, we end up with students who don’t have the ability to be analytical in their approach to issues because argument is couched in vulgar attacks without regard to development of a reasoned response. We need to have the tools to create the discussion and to search for the answers. George Carlin’s seven words we can’t say on T.V. aren’t enough to accomplish this analysis. We’ll never get rid of swearing. That’s been around since the first cave man dropped a stone on his foot. However, we too easily substitute swearing for coherent, well-chosen language. In doing so, we begin to lower the standards of discussion to "is to…is not" because we don’t have any better tools at our disposal. Even Justice Scalia, who should have a huge arsenal of language and reasoning at his disposal, resorted to nonsense in frustration calling the majority ruling on DOMA a case of "legalistic argle-bargle," whatever that means. Kids on the soccer field are beginning the long journey to adulthood and need to have great weapons at their disposal in order to advance through the maze of ideas and roadblocks they will encounter.
McCullough said in the same 60 Minutes interview that he felt part of the disintegration in historical knowledge and language skills comes from the loss of the family dinner. The table should be a place for presenting ideas and arguing them through. Now we are so rushed we don’t have the time to savor the intellectual moments of a meal. At our table, my father would sometimes read a passage from a book or present an interesting dilemma for us to discuss. My mother was in the League of Women Voters, so every election we got the pamphlets to read and talk about at the dinner table. I agree with McCullough even though I shamefully admit I didn’t do as good a job of creating that Algonquin Round Table atmosphere for my kids growing up.
Two things we can do to insure assimilation of more sophisticated responses. First, purchase a good thesaurus rather than depending on whatever our computer word program offers. Encourage your children to look up words to discover the various shades of meaning for shaping their arguments. I remember the day I stood in our kitchen and said the word "crap." I was around 10 years old. My mother said, "Do you know what that word means? Go look it up." I was shocked to discover its true meaning rather than being a harmless expletive. Then she asked me what else I might say instead of "crap." So I had to figure out what would express my feelings of frustration while avoiding what I now knew was not a very nice descriptive word. As the years progressed, I learned to depend on that thesaurus to help me discover how to say exactly what I wanted to say. I also began to naturally develop a stronger vocabulary, which helped me in so many circumstances including my SATs, writing and handling classroom discussions. Secondly, we can challenge our children to answer "why" more often. "Why was that a bad call?" "Why should you have those expensive shoes?" "Why do you hate math?" "Why do kids bully?" There are so many circumstances where we just nod while our kids are speaking without stimulating their reasoning skills. Help them understand the difference between an assertion and an argument. That includes us, as well. "Because I said so" doesn’t cut it in the reasoning department, although I understand the frustration when kids come at us with unformed argument and we’ve had enough. "I want those shoes because they are the best soccer shoes." "Really? What is that based on?" Then help them do the research. The statement may be true, but just saying the shoes are the best isn’t proof. Kids need to learn to question statements made by others by demanding support for the stance. If Landon Donovan endorses a type of cleats, our children need to figure out if that product is really the right one for them. Of course, you may create a monster who can argue better than you can, but at least their arguments will be both substantial and substantiated.
With so many words and meanings to choose from, we can help our kids avoid settling for the easiest and least powerful. When faced with something they feel is unfair on the pitch, they can express their unhappiness in a reasonable and crafted way rather than a knee-jerk explosion of profanity. They still won’t win the battle with the ref, but they will earn his respect. As they grow up, they’ll learn how to shape their responses in such a way as to truly sway someone by utilizing strong language that isn’t irreverent. They also learn how to recognize reasoned argument and powerful word choices. The more articulate they can be, the farther they will go in any profession and certainly in life.